Harbin: the Closest We Ever Got to Narnia

Well it turns out all I needed to buy the train tickets to Harbin was my student ID number!  In order to stay at a hostel or hotel here in China you have to present your passport (I can’t remember if it is like that anywhere else…), but I just used a scan.  Just a little background info on Harbin, it is located in the northernmost province in China, Heilongjiang, which borders Russia and North Korea.  In the 1900s a bunch of Russians came down settled so the European influence on architecture is very apparent.  There were also a large number of Jews that settled in Harbin, so Synagogues are everywhere.  In fact, the hostel we stayed at is built inside of an old Synagogue!

We got tickets for a train leaving at 10:10 p.m.  I bought soft seats instead of hard sleepers because it was only a 9.5 hour train ride… yes, yes, I know that still sounds like a long time but seriously I don’t think anything will ever compare to the train incident of Tulufan.  No smoking AND a place to sit?  Sounds like luxury to me.

The train pulled into Harbin around 7:30 a.m. and from the looks of it, outside didn’t seem too cold.  Alas, it was freezing.  When I say freezing I mean the snot was freezing in my nose and I instantly felt like I had a million mini needles poking through my skin.  We grabbed a cab to what I thought was the hostel but accidentally told the cab driver the address to an actual working Synagogue… fail (we got it eventually though). The cab driver was exceptionally interested in Angie and I.  He insisted on driving us around the city before dropping us off, which at first was a nuisance but when he didn’t charge us for the extra fare it turned out to be a pretty good deal.  All along the streets were massive detailed ice sculptures of dragons, fish, Buddahs, tigers, you name it, they have it.  There were even little ice sculpture stump protectors around the trees in the sidewalks!

Finally at the hostel, Angie and I decided nap for a little while… which actually turned into 3 hours.  But let’s be honest, who really gets up from a nap on time?  After some recuperation we ate a dumpling brunch and explored the main pedestrian walkway of Harbin, which happened to be a five minute walk from our hostel (I would like to take a little credit for the planning there!).  Considering I didn’t go home for holidays, the street seemed super festive!  Ice sculptures sat all along the streets and huge statues were plopped down in the middle of the road, prime photo-ops!  The street signs are in Chinese, English, and Russian, which proved just how close we were to Russia!  We were still hungry after dumplings and stumbled across a bustling Chinese bakery… I immediately purchased what seemed to be a donut covered in sugar.  Chinese bakeries can be quite deceiving, though, you think you are buying bread products that will perfectly imitate the rich tasting products you can find in America and Europe, but the taste is always a little off.  This donut, for example, looked excellent but was fried in oil giving off a very pungent corn smell and taste.  Needless to say, I was CORNfused.  Angie and I chose to take our unsatisfactory bakery products to go and head to Harbin’s Tiger Park.  We hailed a cab very easily off the main road and told the driver clearly where to go.  He agreed without hesitation and we were off.  Seems seamless enough, however after about 4 minutes our cab driver pulled the car over and told us to “deng yi xia” which means “wait a second.”  He said he was going to go grab something to eat… are you kidding me?  It is very easy to run into this type of situation in China.  If you have a foreign face you can bet a thousand dollars that you are going to get taken on a scamming journey if you don’t know better.  Angie and I started yelling at him to take us, he yelled back that he was “so hungry” and we were horrible for not letting him stop.  I have an idea, don’t take passengers when you are going for your lunch break…????  In the end he turned the engine back on and pulled some Fast and Furious style driving while simultaneously grumbling about how ‘messed up’ people are.  Pleeeease.

We purchased our tickets to the Tiger Park and after taking a safari type bus ride through the different areas, we got off the bus and walked up onto a concrete sidewalk raised over a large tiger pen.  The sidewalk is covered on both sides with caging, but you can still stick large objects through the holes… at the park you can purchase animals to watch the tigers maul, legit.  It is 50 RMB to buy a chicken, which most people do, or you can splurge and buy a cow for 1500 RMB! The Russians we were with did all the chicken purchasing so it was cheap entertainment for everyone else. The tigers can tell when the zookeeper is going to throw one out and all start circling the area where he is standing. A couple times I thought, “what if I fell through” and after seeing the chickens survive .5 seconds before turning into a POOF of feathers, I started watching from a distance.

After the tiger park Angie and I headed to the main shebang, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.  I believe it is one of, if not the largest, ice festivals in the world.  As soon as it gets cold enough the artists start going to work on castle-sized ice sculptures, many resembling famous landmarks.  They freeze the ice with colored lights inside so when it gets dark out you get the feeling of being in some fantasy Alice in Wonderland type place. We got there early enough to explore the sculptures in daylight then took refuge in the makeshift indoor KFC structure until the sun went down. The coolest sculptures were the huge ICBC bank, the Coke bottle (which had brown colored lights to look like it was full!), and these two towering Buddah snow sculptures. After a few hours of that I think we were actually getting to the point of freezing so we headed back to the city. It was such an awesome thing to be able to see in person, pictures really aren’t the same.

The Lonely Planet made a point of saying there is a lot of Russian heritage in Harbin and that we should try Russian food during our stay. Angie and I decided that would be awesome so we headed to LP’s recommended Russian Café. After looking at the menu we were a little iffy on staying because the prices were a bit high for our budget, but when else were we going to get authentic Russian food without being in Russia?  Going back in time I wish we had left right then and there.  However, we did not and I ordered the LP recommended “Russian patties” which taste similar to meatloaf. They tasted kind of weird at first, and were served with a sauce that tasted like super vinegary ketchup (this is actually making me feel sick to write). I had a few bites, wasn’t feeling it, but being me I decided I am not going to pay 10 USD for a meal and not finish it. After eating we walked around the pedestrian street, looked in a few shops, then went back to the hostel. Our plan the next day was to leave bright and early for the 731 Japanese Germ Warfare Base that is a 40 minute drive away from the city and go right when it opens at 9am.  We went to bed around 10 pm.

Around 1am I wake up abruptly because it feels like something is squeezing every muscle in my stomach and churning it around. I jumped down from my bunk and run to the freezing cold, smelly public bathrooms and spend the next few hours trying to go to bed… then running to the bathroom… then bed… bathroom… bed… you get the point. Those freaking patties gave me the worst case of food poisoning I have ever had. I went to bed at 5:30 am and when Angie woke me up to go 731, there was no way I was getting out of bed. We slept until 11:30ish because we still wanted to go to the base so pushed ourselves to wake up. I had some bread and was feeling a little better until we took the bus ride to 731… no heat and no shock-absorbers. I wanted to vomit the entire time. Luckily, 731 was a really uplifting and calming atmosphere so once we got there I could relax. Oh yeahhhhh it was where the Japanese tortured and experimented with innocent Chinese nationals during the Second Sino-Japanese war. And there are pictures. It was actually really frustrating being there when I felt like curling up into a ball because being in China I have become really interested in Chinese-Japanese relations and wanted to actually spend time understanding the history of the place.  On the other hand, maybe it was appropriate for me to feel as sick as I did to pay tribute to the people who were injected with anthrax and cut open alive.  It really makes you think about war and war crimes, the people who performed the operations, and the people who suffered from them. It is my hope that no country in the future will ever commit such horrific war crimes ever, ever, ever again.

We took a cab back and I spent the rest of the day in bed. We had gotten a private triple Ensuite the second night so it was nice and quiet and warm. Angie went shopping for some work clothes because there was a Zara really close to our hotel and got me mashed potatoes from KFC for dinner. We left the next morning around 8 for the train. I attempted to focus on read Twilight in Chinese, but couldn’t stop thinking about my family coming to Beijing two days later!! (ALSO: I bleached my hair the day before they came… didn’t turn out so well… I was an Asian blonde.)